In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:26-29)
What do you think about angels? A Washington Times poll found that half of all Americans believe in them. The other half were not so sure. If we’re talking little babies with wings flitting about shooting arrows into the hearts of lovers, I’m not biting. If we’re thinking john Travolta with giant wings as he portrayed the archangel Michael in a 1996 film, I’m still saying, “Nope.” Clarence talking poor George Bailey off the bridge in It’s a Wonderful Life starts to get a little closer to the angels of the Scriptures, but skip the part about him earning his wings.
When we read about angels in Scripture, it is important to remember that the word angel simply means “messenger.” Angels typically appear simply as people- no wings, just people. Sometimes their attire is majestic or glorious, but usually they’re just strangers with a word from God. Sometimes they come in visions. But sometimes they come in the flesh. The writer of Hebrews notes that some Christians in his day, as they welcomed strangers, had welcomed angels without knowing it.
In our Scripture, Mary was perplexed by Gabriel’s words but not by his appearance; hence he appeared as a stranger who told Mary a word about God’s will for her life and who invited her to be open and willing to answer God’s call.
To my knowledge I’ve never met the heavenly kind of angel. But there have been many people whose messages changed my life. When I was fourteen years old, a man named Harold Thorson knocked on my door. He spoke with an electrolarynx (a device that looks like a microphone pressed to the throat, to allow speech for those whose larynx has been removed). He was going door to door in my neighborhood, inviting people to church. Though I did not believe in God I was moved by this man’s visit and started attending church, and my life was forever changed. While in college I was selling women’s shoes in a department store. Belinda came in to try on shoes, but before she left she also invited my wife and me to visit the Methodist church she attended. We’ve been looking for a church. Her invitation, and our visit to her church, led to a call to be a part of renewing The United Methodist Church. How different my life would have been had Harold Thorson not gone visiting door to door or had Belinda not listened to the nudge in her heart to invite me to her church.
There have been a thousand more messengers since then. I think of the pastors whose preaching I heard week after week, and how God spoke to me through them. I also think of my professors at college and seminary, too. My wife has certainly been a messenger from God for me on countless occasions, as have members of the church I serve, such as Nancy, whose persistent invitations led me to visit southern Africa years ago, a visit that would have a profound impact upon my ministry.
Which leads me to a question for you: do you take the time, do you pay attention to what’s happening around you, and do you listen so that you don’t miss God’s angels when they come speaking to you?
Today many of us are so busy, so preoccupied, or in such a hurry that there is no time to listen to how God may be trying to speak to us. Imagine if Gabriel had approached Mary while she was fetching water and she had said, “I’m sorry, I’m really busy right now. Do you think you could come back later?” Or if she had dismissed him as a crackpot when he tried to tell her about God’s plans for her life. And yet this is precisely the response many of us would have in our busy and preoccupied lives today.
God speaks through Scripture and through the still small voice of the Holy Spirit; but God also speaks through people (and occasionally heavenly messengers who look like them). Pay attention! Listen, lest you miss out on God’s purposes for your life.
Lord, thank you for the people through whom you have spoken to me. Help me to pay attention and to listen for your voice through those you send. Speak, Lord; your servant is listening. Amen.